Texas Congressman Lloyd Doggett held one of his regular community meetings this past weekend -- but Saturday's gathering in the Oak Hill neighborhood of Austin to discuss health care reform was anything but routine.
A mob of angry protesters disrupted the gathering, shouted insults at Doggett and held posters that showed the attorney and former Texas Supreme Court justice with devil's horns and a tombstone with his name on it. When the meeting was cut short over concerns about the escalating uproar, the crowd chased him through the parking lot and surrounded his assistant's car, the Oak Hill Gazette reports:
"It was different from anything I've had in 15 years of doing these," Doggett said. "I don't think that enough people in South Austin or any other part of the county understand how fanatic some of these people are."
But this was no grassroots protest against the health care reform bill Doggett supports: It's part of a broader effort also targeting other lawmakers that's being orchestrated by Americans for Prosperity and FreedomWorks, political advocacy groups representing corporate interests with a financial stake in blocking change.
The two groups also orchestrated the "Tea Party" protests earlier this year against taxes and government spending, and they're now working to create an impression of strong public opposition to health care reform -- and particularly to a public insurance option, which a poll released this week found is supported by a majority of Americans.
The liberal policy group ThinkProgress recently obtained a copy of a leaked memo written by a volunteer with the FreedomWorks website Tea Party Patriots, detailing how supporters should disrupt meetings and harass members of Congress. It offered advice to protesters on making their numbers look bigger than they actually are, disrupting the proceedings and rattling the speakers.
ThinkProgress points out that the advice resembles talking points distributed by FreedomWorks as part of its effort to block health care reform. Meanwhile, Patients United Now -- a subsidiary of Americans for Prosperity -- is busing people around the country to attend the protests.
So who's behind these groups?
FreedomWorks is chaired by former Congressman Dick Armey, a Texas Republican who served as the House majority leader from 1995 until his retirement in 2003, when he joined the prominent law firm DLA Piper. That year Armey also became co-chair of Citizens for a Sound Economy, which in 2004 merged with Empower America to become FreedomWorks.
FreedomWorks launched its campaign to block health care reform earlier this year -- the same year DLA Piper received $830,000 to lobby on behalf of the pharmaceutical firm Medicines Co., according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The pharmaceutical industry has been spending millions of dollars on lobbying efforts in recent months to influence the health care reform debate.
FreedomWorks has come under fire before for what critics call "astroturfing" -- that is, creating what appear to be grassroots campaigns that in fact represent corporate interests. For example, the website Angryrenter.com was launched last year during the debate over the mortgage crisis and claimed to represent "millions of renters standing up for our rights." But a Wall Street Journal investigation found that the site was actually created by FreedomWorks.
Like FreedomWorks, Americans for Prosperity also has its roots in Citizens for a Sound Economy, having been founded in 2003 as a successor to CSE. AFP's chair is David H. Koch of Kansas-based Koch Industries, the nation's largest privately held oil company, whose charitable foundation also provided the money for the group's launch. AFP's directors include Art Pope, a North Carolina millionaire businessman and former state legislator whose Pope Foundation funds a network of pro-business think tanks in that state.
As Facing South reported earlier this year, Americans for Prosperity was the force behind a campaign that sought to block President Obama's economic stimulus plan. The group has also worked to scuttle efforts to regulate greenhouse gas pollution, dismissing concerns about climate disruption as "alarmism." And it represented the interests of the tobacco industry by fighting smoking bans in Texas and elsewhere.
For now, Democrats are bracing themselves for more disruptive tactics from demonstrators affiliated with FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity as the health care reform debate moves forward. But they say they don't plan to escalate tensions by fighting back, preferring to let the groups' actions speak for themselves.
(Image above is a still from a video of the protest at Doggett's community meeting in Austin on health care reform.)